Artist Gary Grier talks about Rembrandt with the type of familiar adoration usually reserved for an old school pal or teammate. "He's the man," says the Jacksonville, Fla., artist, whose solo show Just Everyday Living is currently on view at Tennessee State University's Hiram Van Gordon Gallery. "He's been one of my favorite artists since I was 16. He brings you his world and you celebrate his life with him."
Grier's tiny self-portrait "The Artist," which is installed at the entrance of the TSU gallery space, is a nod to the 17th century Dutch artist. Rembrandt meticulously captured his own likeness at various points in his life — the last and most famous was painted the year he died. In his series of self-portraits you see an artist aging before your eyes. Grier was born in 1976, so the man in his panel, with crow's feet and white hair, is an exaggeration of his features to resemble as an old man — and as Grier ages his own face, he references Rembrandt's.
Grier provides several examples of portraiture in the exhibit. He's particularly proud of "Perseverance." "The model is a friend of mine," Grier says. "She's an amazing person, probably one the most inspiring people you would ever meet." His admiration for her is suggested in the painting's bold wooden frame, painted deep red and polished to a shine, but he keeps the painting itself very simple. Her stance is so casual that she appears unaware (or at least unconcerned) that she's being observed. Instead, she has the posture of someone who is among close friends. Her shoulders are slightly slumped, and sunglasses rest atop her head as if she is just passing through, taking a quick break from her busy life. Behind her is a graffiti tag. Grier says, "Even if she wasn't in the picture, and it was just the background, you'd still know it's her."
Details like the swath of graffiti and askew sunglasses reveal the theme of the unexceptional that pervades Grier's work. He paints everyday living with a plainness that speaks to his love for the art form. But even though he worked for over a year as a studio assistant for controversial artist Jeff Koon, whose works elevating the banal are sometimes dismissed as kitschy, Grier's focus on banality is not ironic. There is no sarcasm in the garbage truck, oil-stained parking lot and cracked sidewalk of "In The Cut," nor in the dabs of gold paint that draw attention to the Miller can in "High Life."
"Cupcake," by far the largest canvas in the exhibition, shows an old lady who is dwarfed by the painting's expansive composition. She appears patient but expectant, perhaps waiting at a bus stop. "Cupcake" is a simple painting, but it is surprisingly complete, and like a haiku that removes all unnecessary descriptions, what is left behind is the essence of Grier's subject — not just a portrait of a woman, but a portrait of how the world can engulf you and make you feel small. As in several of the paintings in this exhibit, people are sometimes just a detail in the larger work, and as the exhibition title suggests, living, not life, is Grier's subject matter.
The works between Grier's portraits are of a category that's harder to define but just as relatable, like screen shots of home movies. These images are powerful for what they leave out; all the action occurs beyond the canvas. "Geraldine and Cousins" shows four people off center, with one woman barely visible at the edge. There are only clues about the event — possibly a church service or a funeral — and yet the artist includes details like the scalloped edge of an aluminum awning and the side view of a car. In "High Life," the subject leans back in a plastic lawn chair at a plastic table, alone in the painting but clearly in a group of people who are just out of view. In "One Down," the main subject is the door to the building, not the man walking past it, halfway hidden by the car parked against a broken curb. The building's windows are not quite empty — there is a hint of activity happening there, but what kind? Again, Grier paints the scenery, not the subjects.
Like Rembrandt's work, Grier's paintings are autobiographical. They are sincere, stripped of artifice, and without polish or social commentary. His occasional reverence for his subjects — with a gilded frame, a halo, or a glowing shine — is more private iconography than ideological assertion. His paintings are rarely passionate or incendiary, but it is their lack of excitement that makes them so exceptional. For Grier, painting is an everyday thing, just as simple — and just as essential — as breath, food and water.
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Thanks so much for the fun read! Have a great summer.
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